Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 4   No. 10 Table of Contents
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October 2002 

interview Interview: Nechervan Idris Barzani
Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil (KDP)

Nechervan Idris Barzani
Michael Rubin, a member of the MEIB editorial board and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, interviewed Nechervan Idris Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), regarding post-Saddam Iraq, US Iraq policy, and the KDP's own relations with Baghdad. This interview was conducted online between Philadelphia and Salahuddin, Iraq, on September 15, 2002. This is the fourth MEIB interview with Iraqi Kurdish politicians. Previous interviews include Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Prime Minister Barham Salih, KDP Minister of Reconstruction Nasreen Sideek, and KDP Education Minister Abdulaziz Ta'ib Ahmed.

Nechervan Idris Barzani, a grandson of KDP founder Mustafa Barzani, was born in 1966 in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1974, his family were forced into exile in Iran. He often accompanied his late father, Idris Barzani, on official visits to Middle Eastern and European countries, a his future political career. In 1984, he enrolled at the University of Teheran to study political science, but withdrew three years later following the sudden death of his father and took up an active role in Kurdish politics, working in KDP youth organizations.

Barzani was elected to the KDP central committee at its 10th Congress in 1989 and re-elected at the 11th Congress in 1993, when he assumed a position on the political bureau. After the 1991 Gulf War, he participated in the negotiations with the Iraqi government. In 1996, he was appointed deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, and in 1999 became prime minister.

Kurds often say they are reluctant to support Washington's anti-Saddam policies because the US has given them no firm guarantees for the future. What sort of guarantees do the Kurds want?

A viable Iraq must come out as a result of any change of regime, both as a state and as a community. Within the span of its 80-year history as a state, Iraq has not performed to an acceptable international standard. In this respect, one should not lose sight of the fact that Iraq, particularly during the last 40 years, has primarily failed on two accounts:

It has failed to devise the kind of political system that would give prosperity and security to its citizens and allow for civilized relation with its neighbors. Iraq has also persistently failed to deal equitably with and solve the Kurdish problem.

Now Iraq is being asked to transform itself to a democratic, federal, pluralistic state that treats its citizens fairly and coexists peacefully with its neighbors. In this expected change, for Iraq to realize a better future, it is the people of Iraq and the international community that will make it happen. Since the international community is spearheading this change, which we hope is for the benefit of Iraqi people, the international community should continue to supervise and help in the establishment of the new order within a future Iraq. We feel that there must be an international guarantee that there will be support and assistance during at least the transitional period.

Do you mean support specifically for Iraqi Kurds?

Iraq is a country rich in resources that have never been shared equitably among its various regions or with its various communities. Any political arrangement for the future must be underpinned by economic security. Political and economic security must go hand in hand to assure the future success of the country. If a new federal system of government is agreed among Iraqis, Kurdistan region must be guaranteed an equitable share of the country's resources, similar to that which is currently guaranteed by the SCR-986 Oil-for-Food program, which has proved to be a success in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is a necessity for the future viability and sustainability of the region. Without such guarantees, the stability of the state could once again be threatened.

It makes good economic sense to put in place guarantees that will safeguard and sustain all that has been achieved under SCR-986 in Iraqi Kurdistan. Guaranteeing that a fair share of the proceeds from the sale of oil is maintained in a post-Saddam Iraq would ensure that the region is able to continue to develop.

Kurds are looking for guarantees from the international community that gross violations of basic human rights will not be ignored and that action will be taken to protect the Kurds in the future.

Why should the US support the Kurds? Why should it continue to spend billions of dollars enforcing the no-fly zone?

The [post-1991] intervention in Kurdistan for humanitarian reasons marked the first time that the international community has acted in such a manner and set a precedent that has since been copied in Kosovo and East Timor.

"A fledgling democracy has taken root in Iraqi Kurdistan that has the potential to serve as a model for a future Iraq."
Currently, as a result of the protection of the US and its allies, a fledgling democracy has taken root in Iraqi Kurdistan that has the potential to serve as a model for a future Iraq. The people of Iraqi Kurdistan have legitimate demands for their continued security and so long as the Iraqi regime remains in power and in possession of weapons of mass destruction, continued protection for the Kurds is a necessity. Having been the victims of repression by successive Iraqi regimes, Kurds are very aware of the necessity of continued protection until the international community has taken action to ensure that a free and democratic government is in place in Baghdad that does not threaten the stability of the country and the region. Continued US and UK support and the use of Turkish facilities play a crucial role in maintaining peace and stability in Iraqi Kurdistan, which must be taken into consideration when evaluating the need for peace and stability throughout the Middle East.

The international community placed responsibility for the protection of the Kurds on the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies. While the situation remains unresolved in Iraq, it remains a responsibility to keep in place this protection by whatever means necessary.

What exactly is the US protecting?

Although geopolitically Iraq remains a state with which the international community officially deals, the fact of our existence outside the rule of the central government for more than a decade has made it necessary that we function both on regional and international levels as a political and government authority catering to the needs of some 4 million people. The consequences of this existence have necessitated the establishment of direct relations on various levels with neighboring countries and beyond. Furthermore, the creation of the Safe Haven and the situation in which we find ourselves today are the result of actions and decisions by the international community. The initiative of the Kurdish leadership and the positive response of the population in Kurdistan have contributed as well to the creation of a dynamic situation for rehabilitation and development of the area. Providing protection for the Kurds and the establishment of the no-fly zone are also consequences of these decisions which the United States, both as a government and a permanent member of the Security Council, has effected and continued to support.

How do you envision Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein?

If the goal of the US were only the removal of Saddam Hussein and if the state of Iraq were left otherwise intact, the underlying problems in the country would remain unresolved. This could result in more internal crises and violence.

However, if a new free, democratic and federal republic were established in Iraq, in accordance with the agreement and participation of its own citizens and with the support and backing of the international community, then the future could be quite different. With a clear program set out to implement such a change with the assistance of the US and other countries, as well as the United Nations, a transition can be made to a peaceful, stable, and secure country. This would allow the process of rehabilitation, and economic and social development to begin.

We envision the resources of Iraq being put to use for the benefit of its citizens instead of for financing their repression or aggression against its neighbors. We hope that Iraq will once again be welcomed by the international community, known for its support of human rights and development of its rich human and physical resources for the benefit of all its citizens.

Specifically, we believe that the future Iraq should be a free, democratic, parliamentary, and federal republic where the rights of the Kurds and other groups, whatever their religion or ethnicity, are recognized and upheld. This is crucial, in our view, for the future stability of the country.

The people of Iraqi Kurdistan must be allowed to participate in the governing and administration of the central government without discrimination. The right to self-determination for the Kurds must be guaranteed by the future federal government of Iraq. The cultural, political, social and basic human rights of individuals must also be guaranteed.

What role should Kurds play in Baghdad in a post-Saddam Iraq?

Kurds must contribute to and participate in the central government in accordance with the common agreement of the people of Iraq. Within this system, Kurds must have their own self-governed autonomous region.

Kurds must work to protect the sovereignty of Iraq and prevent regional interference in the affairs of Iraq via Kurdistan.

We should put our efforts into protecting a federal, democratic parliamentary system, creating social stability in Iraq, and establishing and maintaining peaceful relationships with our neighbors and other countries, in the interest of Kurds, indeed in the interests of the people of Iraq. We must not allow another aggressive regime to take over Iraq.

The participation of Kurds in the central government could act as a factor of moderation and balance. The experience gained during the past decade could be put to good use during the transition period of the transformation of Iraq to a democracy.

If you could give any advice to the US government, what would it be?

We are greatly indebted to the US, Britain and their allies for their protection of the Kurdistan region. We are very appreciative of the role played by the US in helping to end the internal conflict in Kurdistan and its assistance in working out the peace agreement between us.

We believe that the US, Britain and their allies should support the establishment of a free, democratic, parliamentary, and federal republic of Iraq that respects the rights of the Kurds and all other people, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.

If possible, the resolution of Iraqi issues should be carried out peacefully. The Iraqi people deserve a free and democratic system and the rehabilitation of their country after so many years of deprivation. Then Iraq could be an important regional power that could contribute positively in establishing sustained peace, prosperity and stability in the Middle East.

Iraq's weapons of mass destruction must be found and destroyed. The people of Iraqi Kurdistan have already been the victims of these weapons and hope that no other people ever have to suffer such devastating attacks. The Middle East will be much safer when this threat has been permanently eradicated. The vast majority of people in Iraq look forward to this change.

Many oppressed people in the region also hope that freedom and respect for human rights will become the norm in their countries. There are dictators and extremists who do not share these goals and will resist change in any way they can. But their people are fed up with their continued suffering, poverty, and suppression at the hands of dictators. The supporters of social and political change are many but their energy has not been released yet. They must be given hope that they can bring about change. Once they see hope, they will do the work that needs to be done.

Democratic change is long overdue in Iraq. It is clear that the Iraqi regime will not allow this to happen, so the United States and the international community should concentrate their efforts on helping the Iraqi people bring about desired change.

The Iraqi Turkmen Front has complained about persecution at the hands of the KDP. How do you respond to their complaints? Do Turkmen have full rights in Iraqi Kurdistan? Is any reconciliation possible? What is the status of Assyrians in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The rights of the Turkmen and Assyrians are protected by laws passed by the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly. As a result of our own history, we are very sensitive to the issues of the minorities living in our region and have made it a point to recognize and uphold their rights. The KDP has always enshrined minority rights in their policies throughout its 56-year history.

The most recent legislative changes, in 2001, created two new Directorates of Education: one for Turkmen and one for Assyrians. These new directorates are responsible for the administration of educational programs for these minority communities. Education is offered in the Turkmen and Syriac languages. Last year, 261 teachers were teaching 2,448 students at 15 Turkmen schools and 625 teachers were teaching 8,359 students at 34 Assyrian and Chaldean schools. A special project continues to translate and print textbooks and other educational resource materials in these languages. In addition, special curricula are authorized that allows special religious educational programs for Christian and Yezidi children attending school. Arabic language schools have also been established for people displaced to the region whose mother tongue is Arabic.

The Ministry of Culture also has two departments for Turkmen and Assyrian culture staffed by members of those communities.

In the general community, Assyrians and Turkmen take part in all aspects of life. They have educational, cultural, and sports associations, form their own trade unions, and have established many political parties. They publish, in their own languages, books, magazines, and newspapers that are available for sale in the local markets. These communities broadcast radio and television programs in the region in their own languages as well. Assyrians and Turkmen form a vibrant part of the overall community of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But do they participate in the [Iraqi] Kurdistan Regional Government?

Within the Kurdistan Regional Government, there are one Turkmen and three Christian cabinet ministers. Christian parties hold five seats in the parliament. Many Assyrians and Turkmen were elected to municipal councils during the elections held in 2001 (the first municipal elections held in the region since 1957). The Iraqi Turkmen Front refused to participate in both the 1992 election as well as the 2001 municipal elections.

Many people from minority communities, Assyrian, Chaldean, Turkmen and Armenian, live in cities and towns under the control of the central government. No accurate statistics exist about their population numbers; however, it is estimated that about 38,000 Christians are living in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, with the majority being Chaldean and about 8,000 of them Assyrian. In general, the communities here maintain good relations with each other. The only valid statistics, from the official 1957 census (prior to active Arabization efforts of the central government), indicated that about 2.16% of the total population of Iraq was Turkman. (I quote the statistic from Professor Nouri Talabani's Arabization of the Kirkuk Region, Uppsala, 2002).

There is no thought of or need for reconciliation as there is no dispute between the communities. The great majority of Turkmen here support and participate in the democratic experiment of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. That support and participation is evident through their involvement in all areas of the Kurdistan Regional Government and in the local community. Turkmen practice the freedoms that are afforded the people of the region in general. Furthermore, the region's efforts to establish a civil society in which Turkmen as well as Kurds, Assyrians, and Chaldeans participate are actively supported by all communities. This is a willing and voluntary participation by the great majority of the people in the region with the aim of creating a better future for all.

The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) constantly reports on Kurdish repression of Assyrians. Are AINA's reports justified?

We have experienced a few isolated incidents, from which no country or community in the world is immune, and the victims have come from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious groups. There are unfortunately small groups of malcontents who allow themselves to be used by foreign organizations to forward their own interests and from time to time this has caused problems in the region. The opinions of these groups are not, however, representative of views held by the majority of minority communities living in the region.

The AINA's highly inaccurate reports have been refuted in correspondence with the US State Department. Assyrian and Chaldean political parties and other organizations or associations in the region do not support their claims.

People are welcome to visit Iraqi Kurdistan and they are free to travel anywhere they choose and to see and speak to whomever they please. Many journalists, scholars, official delegations from around the world, family members, and friends of people here come to the region regularly and they have seen and reported on the real situation in Kurdistan. There are many other Turkmen and Assyrian parties and associations in the region who hold entirely different views from those espoused by the Iraqi Turkmen Front and the AINA.

In February 2001, assassins killed Franso Hariri, the KDP majority leader in the KRG parliament. The KDP and PUK blamed militants from the Tawhid faction, one of the precursor groups to Ansar al-Islam. Does Iraqi Kurdistan have an Islamist problem?

The great majority of Kurds are Muslims. Like many other Muslim countries, Kurdistan has people who hold more extremist Islamic political views, but they have very little support in the local community. Under the banner of religion, they are seeking political power to assert their own extremist views by force. Tawhid and Ansar al-Islam do exist in small pockets in Halabja and its surrounding area. Supporters have been involved in committing acts of terror, such as killing civilians, destroying women's beauty salons, stirring up trouble between Muslims and Christians, or labeling various secular organizations as atheist. The regional authorities are mainly in control of the situation and some members have been apprehended and charged in accordance with the law.

"Extremism does not flourish where democracy and freedom prevail, but grows under the shadow of dictatorship."
The KDP is committed to policies of religious tolerance and respect and has espoused these views since its inception. The population here is predominantly known for having moderate religious views. We believe that this should continue. Reality has shown that extremism does not flourish where democracy and freedom prevail, but grows under the shadow of dictatorship.

When many in Washington think of Iraqi Kurds, they recall the 1994-1997 civil war and the KDP's invitation to Iraqi Republican Guards to enter Irbil. Do the Kurdish factions now work together? Can a unified parliament reconvene? Will there be revenue sharing between the KDP and PUK? In what ways do the KDP and PUK cooperate now?

Fortunately, the last traces of civil war are about to be erased. A joint agreement has just been announced that the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly will convene with all members present on October 4, 2002. Lately, there is a high level of cooperation and peaceful coexistence between the various political organizations, including the KDP, PUK, Assyrians, and Turkmans.

The convening of the joint parliament is key to the resolution of the outstanding issues between the KDP and PUK. The fulfillment of the Washington Agreement is strongly supported by all and represents the will of our people.

There was some revenue sharing when there were differences between the revenues of the administrations in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah but now both sides would agree that their revenues are on a par since the diesel trade has stopped in the summer of 2001. After the Washington Agreement, revenue sharing was in accordance with the modalities set up by the State Department officials involved.

The involvement of the Iraqi forces during the civil war was in response to the other side's invitation to a neighboring country's armed forces and a result of the inaction of the United States government towards that development while they were supervising the peace process between the KDP and PUK.

The KDP and PUK are united in their position with regard to the future of Iraq and speak with one voice on this matter and those related to the Iraqi opposition.

Events of the last decade in Iraqi Kurdistan should perhaps be seen as a testing ground for the Kurds and their political leadership. We believe we have come a long way in dealing with our problem and learning from our mistakes. That and the goodwill and sympathy our people's cause enjoys, should enable us to secure a better and safer future for the people of Kurdistan.

How are KDP relations with Baghdad? Is there cooperation or coordination between Irbil and the Iraqi government?

In spite of the fact that for the past 11 years the free part of Iraqi Kurdistan has remained outside the rule of the Government of Iraq, nevertheless this has not meant a total severance of relations in terms of both individuals and government. Individuals maintain personal and commercial ties with other individuals or family members as well as with the central government authorities.

Reality on the ground necessitates that relations of some sort be maintained. Since Iraqi Kurdistan is subject to the UN sanctions on Iraq, it has been necessary to maintain and develop commercial exchange with the rest of the country. For example, all fuel supplies for the region, whether for Irbil, Duhok or Sulaimaniyah, are purchased from the central government. When the region was cut off in 1992-1993, no one else would sell us oil. These two years were catastrophic for the whole population and the environment, particularly the forests which were cut down for fuel.

Although according to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) it is the United Nations that implements the Oil-for-Food program in Iraqi Kurdistan, it has also been the UN that has repeatedly reminded us that they are doing so on behalf of the Baghdad government. The fact that SCR-986 and the MOU were concluded between the UN and the Government of Iraq requires us to maintain a certain level of contact with the central government, usually conducted through UN agencies. This has been taken advantage of by the Iraqi government, which has tried to undermine the program in Iraqi Kurdistan and discredit the Oil-for-Food program as a whole.

What do you say to rumors in Washington that the Barzanis have "extensive" business dealings in Baghdad?

It is a known fact that there was diesel trade to Turkey through the territory that is under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. When this trade was going on, revenue from levies charged was used to finance the local administration. This was not for the benefit of the Barzanis, but for the benefit of the local administration. The KRG has tens of thousands of civil servants, without whom the 986 program could not be implemented, who must be paid - at ridiculously low salary levels. The KRG is also responsible for all recurring costs associated with the operation and maintenance of projects completed under the SCR-986 program (no funds are allocated from the SCR-986 program for these purposes). There are many other normal government services that are not funded under the SCR-986 program that must be paid for, including most municipal services such as the operation and maintenance of water and sanitation services. The ability of the KRG to fund itself is in many ways tied to this and other sources of revenue. This is well-known in UN as well as other official government circles.

What has the KDP done to better education in the region under its control?

The Kurdistan Regional Government takes education very seriously. We have made school available to every child in the region, from the main cities to the smallest villages. This has involved a massive effort to construct or reconstruct schools for all levels of education. This year, 553,000 students are enrolled in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools in the region.

Since 1991, this region opened the University of Duhok and expanded the University of Salahaddin to double its size. Technical institutes that were previously only available in Irbil and Duhok have been established in many other locations around the region, such as Zakho, Aqra, Shaqlawa, or Soran. Kindergartens have also been added. Furthermore, education is free for everyone from kindergarten through to doctoral studies at university.

Through the SCR-986 Oil-for-Food program, resources are being used to modernize the educational system and introduce resources such as computers and educational software programs. Funding has also been provided for projects to train existing teachers about new teaching methodologies, how to use computers, or classroom discipline.

We have opened a new Teachers' College at the University of Salahaddin to provide better training for our teachers. Efforts are being made to train teachers who can introduce analytical thinking skills to students, demonstrate tolerance for differences, and teach the value of respect for individuals and ideas.

School curricula are being reviewed and examined to ensure that children are learning about human rights and tolerance. New lessons have been introduced that teach children about their rights. Texts have been checked to make sure that extremist or racist ideas are removed. Religious studies lessons are also being reviewed to ensure that the principles of tolerance, peace, love and peaceful coexistence are being taught to children.

It is in our best interests for the future of the country to ensure that all our children are well-educated. The isolation from the rest of the world during the past decade has had a very heavy impact on education. We are severely limited by our outdated equipment and textbooks and lack of access to the educational innovations that have taken place during this time. Only recently have we had better access to information through the Internet; however, this is not a solution by itself to the lack of up-to-date information and resources. We will be very interested in making extensive improvements to the education system in the future and know that we will need a great deal of assistance from governments and educators from outside the region to help us achieve our goal to have a world-class education system.

2002 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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